U.S. foreign-policy hubris can take a tragic toll
“We Americans raise our families in peace and harmony. We enjoy and preserve the democratic way of life, and we have built for ourselves what we consider the happiest, most successful society on earth.
“Perhaps what is most important we are virtuous.
“We unstintingly give of our treasure to help the underprivileged of the world. We give our blood and our lives to help the rest of the world to live as we do.
“We send forth our young in uniform to destroy the enemies of our way of life and to keep the world good.
“Never, in our minds’ eyes, could we be guilty of needlessly killing innocents; of torturing prisoners; of being ungallant to women; of cowardice; of making the poor people of another nation poorer still....
“Alas, Americans are human beings, in common with all other nationalities. We have our greatness. But we also have within us the animal.”
— Malcolm Browne, “The New Face of War”
I am not an admirer of military intervention and “nation building” in places where U.S. national interest is not at risk. Further, I believe that political, social and economic progress seldom, if ever, is successfully imposed from without. It springs from within, or it doesn’t spring at all.
Where natural disaster inflicts great harm on people in foreign places, a wealthy and generous land like ours should indeed help alleviate the suffering of those who are harmed. They are, after all, fellow travelers on this little piece of celestial rock we call earth. They are our brothers, too.
Where disasters are of man’s own making and political institutions need be overthrown, dealing with these rightly is the responsibility of the populations affected. If you reject this notion,
I beg you consider Haiti, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where America has struggled mightily, for long years, at the cost of many billions of dollars and, more tragically, many thousands of Americans killed and wounded, and many more thousands of innocent civilians whose lives we promised to lift up, and only pushed down. Can anyone truthfully say that we succeeded in any meaningful way to improve the lot of the common man in these unhappy places?
You could, I suppose, argue the Korean War is an exception that proves the rule — if you ignore the obscenity we left behind just north of the “demilitarized” zone. How would you feel if our country, 60 years after the signing of an armistice (not a war-ending peace treaty) had a crazy, nuclear-armed neighbor encamped 20-odd miles from your capital city? Would you begin to understand the truth behind Douglas MacArthur’s “In war, there is no substitute for victory”?
To go back in history a bit, think of what our 20-year occupation of Haiti, one of our Caribbean near neighbors, failed to accomplish. Can you think of anything at all in the way of lasting progress we achieved there?
One of our most high-minded of presidents, Woodrow Wilson, began that occupation.
Another, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ended it. (FDR, incidently, famously boasted that he, while serving as an assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote the Haitian constitution that the occupation left in place.)
In but a few years after the last American Marines departed, Haiti was again, as it was when we intervened, the most ill-governed and poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, as arguably it is to this very day.
It is not that our intentions are not honorable or that the military and civilian “advisors” we assigned to the countries we intervened in were incompetent, arrogant or both (though some indeed were and are), it’s just that the tasks they were given to accomplish, more often than not, were quixotic and based more on wishful thinking than reality — a jousting at windmills, if you will.
My conservative friends — well, not many of them real friends — are giving President Barack Obama a hard time over his reluctant, foot-dragging intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Soon, depending on how the turmoil in Egypt plays out, they may also take him to task over his refusal to intervene there.
In this, he displays far more wisdom than they.
Again, undoubtedly, an exception that proves the rule.
R.L. Schreadley, a former Post and Courier executive editor, is a retired naval officer and a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.